When Serota first came into the role of Director of Tate, the organisation was very different to that which we know today. Tate Liverpool was just opening, joining the single Tate Gallery in London. Founded in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art (which it was known as until 1937), the gallery holds the country’s national collection of British art from 1500 onwards, moving into international and contemporary art over the course of its life.
Serota came to Tate following a series of stints at other galleries and prestigious cultural organisations. Born in 1946, he studied History of Art at the University of Cambridge and obtained a Master’s at the Courtauld Institute; he became the Chairman of the new Young Friends of the Tate at 23 years old, served as a regional art officer for the Arts Council of Great Britain, and became curator at the Hayward Gallery. In 1973, aged just 27, he was appointed director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, moving to the well-respected but severely under-resourced Whitechapel Gallery in 1976, where he would serve as director for 12 years, organising and curating a series of seminal exhibitions. Shows included the work of artists previously unknown to Londoners, from Frida Kahlo to Anselm Kiefer, as well as that of emerging artists. Anthony Gormley, famed sculptor and creator of the Angel of the North, was given a solo exhibition at the gallery at the start of his career, in 1981.
Serota moved to Tate in 1988, wasting little time in implementing his plans to reinvigorate and modernise the gallery and its collection, which had been perceived as wallowing somewhat in a state of old-fashioned stasis. His appointment received mixed responses at the time, though Howard Hodgkin, British painter and printmaker, wrote in the Sunday Times that he was ‘a passionate man’ and was ‘quite unusual in this country in his commitment to modern painting and sculpture’. In 1990, Serota launched the ‘New Displays’ programme, restoring the central Duveen Galleries — which, in 1937, were the first public galleries in England designed specifically for the display of sculpture — and introducing regular rotations of the collection, with many works brought out of storage to be shown for the first time in years, in order to demonstrate the relationships between items.
In the years running up to the millennium, Serota put his vision for the separation of the gallery’s ever-growing collections of modern and historical art into action, with the creation of Tate Modern in the former Bankside Power Station, to hold collections from 1900 onwards, with the original Pimlico site subsequently rebranded as Tate Britain. Today, Tate Modern is the most popular gallery of modern art in the world, and has contributed in a major way to Bankside’s emergence as one of London’s most exciting developing cultural quarters. Among Serota’s many initiatives at Tate Modern, the series of dramatic special commissions in the cavernous Turbine Hall have drawn crowds in their tens and hundreds of thousands, and has been emulated by museums around the world.
Throughout his long stewardship of Tate, Serota has been consistently recognised — vilified, even, depending on outlook — as the man responsible for bringing modern art into the British cultural mainstream, ushering in an era-defining fascination, for better or worse, with contemporary artistic output, which was all but nonexistent in the ’70s when he took the reigns in Oxford and Whitechapel. The consistently controversial Turner Prize (whose jury Serota chaired until 2007) is largely made in his image — though it has existed since 1984, the prize was redefined in numerous major ways after his arrival at Tate, not least of which was a new focus on showcasing emergent modern and contemporary art. Tony Cragg, whose sculpture Britain Seen from the North was first exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981 when the artist was only 22, was the recipient of the prize in Serota’s first year.
Serota’s commitment to the diversification of public art is rarely brought into question, even by those who feel he has overseen its levelling down. Art critic Mark Hudson has described how ‘always he had the sense he was struggling against an ingrained national philistinism and hostility to modern art’, while Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer at The Guardian, credits him with a belief ‘in culture as a civic right; in the importance of art as a precious resource to be held in common by the nation as a whole’, who has ‘taken Tate’s responsibility as the dominant institution in Britain’s art world seriously’. His fiercely progressive trajectory has seen increasing diversification not just in terms of contemporary versus heritage — the Tate collection has expanded to include other mediums such as photography, increased its representation of female artists, and looked past the borders of Europe and North America, procuring works from, and seeking collaborations with organisations in, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
The fruits of his endeavours? Numbers of visitors on an unprecedented scale. Almost 8 million attended across its sites in 2014-2015, with the Tate Modern racking up 5.7 million alone — almost half of its visitors being under the age of 35. But, the last two decades have also seen a plethora of modern art galleries spring up in parts of the country that would previously have been seen as untenable. Besides the Tate’s own gallery in St Ives, there is the Baltic in Gateshead, the New Art Gallery in Walsall, the Towner in Eastbourne, the Nottingham Contemporary, the Hepworth in Wakefield, and the Turner Contemporary in Margate — a regionalisation of contemporary art that many credit directly to Serota’s influence. Crucially, though his departure from Tate may be mourned by many, its in light of this impressive legacy that his future role as Chairman of Arts Council England may prove an invaluable asset to the UK’s collective culture.